“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen.
Check out last week’s entry here.
Speaking during Supreme Court case Jacobellis v Ohio in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart opined, “I know it when I see it.” When you hear it too: You know what “porno music” sounds like, that distinctly indistinct muzak, the likes of which floats through the aisles of the sickeningly lit video store that Sean McGinnis (Michael Cunio) regularly visits in 2001’s The Fluffer. Something isn’t quite right, though, as the flutes and their blandly jovial high notes are augmented by the slick, almost ghostly presence of a synthesizer. It’s manufactured lust with something haunting behind it.
Before leading Julianne Moore to her first Academy Award win in 2015 with Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland were a directing team that dealt much more explicitly with queerness. Such films included 2008’s Pedro, about AIDS activist and former The Real World contestant Pedro Zamora, and their first film, The Fluffer, about an aspiring filmmaker who starts out in LA with the titular job. While a slew of films exist vaguely within the porn industry and to varying degrees confront the implications of pornography and identity, they’ve all generally been about and for heterosexual audiences/performers. The Fluffer almost acts as a reply to such films: Less concerned with the facile premise of “the gritty reality behind porn,” the film is interested most in how images shape our notions of desire.
The landscape of Los Angeles in The Fluffer is sun-struck, but washed out and lifeless. Sean’s dreams of becoming a filmmaker worthy of pantheon status are cast to the side briefly when he decides to interview for a position at Men of Janus, a gay porn studio whose most recent “cash cow” was Citizen Cum. Glatzer and Westmoreland are concise but thorough in their characterization of Sean: Evident in the job interview scene, Sean’s good at compartmentalizing what he lusts after erotically and aspirationally. When asked if he’s seen the aforementioned “cow” of a film, which he mistakenly (or did he?) got from the video store, he replies, “It was great…I mean the camera work was a little shaky in places.” Cunio’s mouth turns up slightly, a mix of sheepish and slightly reticent. It changes when he starts talking about the cinematography, if only briefly. His eyes light up—he looks directly at the producer.
That kind of intensity washes over the actor’s face earlier in the film as he watches Johnny Rebel, née Mikey Rossini (Scott Gurney), in Citizen Cum. A close-up of a close-up: Johnny Rebel’s neo-classical form—sculpted, tan, probably would be at home in West Hollywood—distorted by Sean’s dinky television screen. On the screen, analog lines cut through Johnny’s face, and as Sean slows down the video, smoke luxuriously unfurls from the actor’s mouth.
Sean is initially hired as a cameraman on one of the studio’s productions, but soon becomes Johnny’s personal “fluffer,” a job position that refers to the person that keeps a porn actor aroused between shooting. Sean also learns that Johnny is “gay for pay,” meaning he identifies as straight but works in gay porn for the money. Off camera, Johnny is aloof, narcissistic, even cunning and manipulative. Elements of his calculated nature show themselves in his pornographic work, a kind of dominance that is utilized to suit his needs (a producer mentions he’s frustrating to work with because of the number of things he’s unwilling to do on camera). That Citizen Cum was his first big hit is no coincidence. Sean, however, oscillates between a liberal arts educated self-awareness and a guilelessness that overwhelms him: He begins to conflate the job with real attraction, his longing for Johnny losing its mindfulness, becoming that of a schoolboy’s. Desire becomes as capable of operating within the bounds of reality as it is within fiction. But Sean’s problem is his inability to discern the two.
“Funny how the real ones never seem real.” So says a casting director to Mikey’s girlfriend, Babylon, real name: Julie (Roxanne Day). Both Babylon and Johnny are “perfect,” but they’re as dead and lifeless as the marble statues they (are told) to emulate. Meanwhile, producers watch footage from Sean’s first shoot and judge its quality, how well it sells an idea of gay sex. It’s (homo)eroticism by committee.
While studio executive Herman Lasky (aka Chad Cox, played by Robert Walden), explains the Roman origin of the company’s name as “the god of entrances and exits,” there’s an allusion there that’s hinted at throughout the film but never explicitly spoken about. True, Janus is the god of doorways, but he’s also the god as both friend and enemy, the epitome of duplicity. Johnny Rebel’s duplicity is twofold: He’s the pulpy, male equivalent of a femme fatale with his weaponized masculinity and his penchant for bad boy, quasi-hard-boiled habits; he’s also the idea of male desire, constructed to woo and seduce. He’s a manifestation of a homonormative ideal that isn’t really attainable and whose existence is negligible. He’s the epitome of a white, cisgender, gay masculinity that engenders anxiety and self-loathing in others, including Sean. He’s also straight. He’s disassociated from himself unless it works to his advantage. He’s homonormativity in a noir framework. His straightness underlines a narrative that gay male culture tends to underline: Heteromasculinity is ideal, even when it’s gay. (See: Out Magazine’s cover boy. Or Davey Wavey.)
An excerpt from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses fades in at the beginning of the film, carrying the most painful and disdainful lines regarding Narcissus. The porno music dances in blackness:
“…both boys and girls looked to him to make love, and yet that handsome figure of proud Narcissus had little feeling for either boys or girls”
It’s a damning thing to say about gay culture, and a thing that’s maybe too frequently said with self-righteousness, but The Fluffer frames the construction of homonormative desire and how it shapes one’s identity in a manner that pulls off a starkness without being smarmy. Sean’s naiveté isn’t endearing; you’re watching someone consume an aesthetic that’s designed to proliferate and be commodified. The Fluffer examines attraction both within the context of personal consumption and its ideological implications.
But the intersection of Sean’s film school proclivities, seen in the way he uses a camera during shoots and what he talks about while high on MDMA, and his capacity for longing is slyly folded into the film’s trajectory. As he becomes more involved in the exploits of Johnny Rebel’s own issues regarding addiction, theft and possible murder, Sean finds himself rolled up in exactly the kind of film he wants to make, the kind of story he yammers on about: The Fluffer eschews convention by nature of queering the tropes that pepper film noir, filled with the same sense of cynicism, anxiety and dread about sex, love and identity. Rather than have its protagonist navigate a post-WWII/mid-Cold War world, The Fluffer is about a man navigating the way he interrogates desire in a post-AIDS/new porn boom.
The anxiety of the film peaks, just as much of film noir does, in its very lack of closure and satisfaction. Against his better judgment, Sean helps Johnny Rebel escape from the police when Chad Cox is found dead, and Sean’s infatuation with the idea of Johnny consumes him. After comforting Johnny in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, he wakes up, his money stolen and a fan letter to Johnny in his pocket. Johnny remains as much as an elusive construct as ever, and it’s hard to tell whether Sean is completely disillusioned or not. Yet, as he looks into the mirror throughout the film, there’s a palpable sense of a form of self-actualization impacted by the very images he (unconsciously) worships, pornographic and otherwise. He compartmentalizes his cognizance of how these images shape him and what he wants, and The Fluffer’s examination of these ideas becomes more and more cynical.
As the credits roll at the end of the film, The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love” bleeds across the screen and grounds the film with a sense of emotional authenticity, allowing it to balance its cerebral subversion of the “straight object of affection” and Sean’s personal stakes. But what The Fluffer reveals about desire is that maybe we’re all in love with the idea of love, that the “what” and “whom” of our infatuation is always some constructed image and identity. Desire will remain as obscure an object as ever.